Mileage-based programs in elementary schools have motivated millions of children to get active, to move, to be healthy. Great! Fitness has been the objective, running the means. But thinking has changed over time. Today, we view fitness in a new light: not only as the product of running, but also the precursor -- the basis on which running is built. It is strength, flexibility, and cardiorespiratory fitness that individually and in concert allow youth to meet the physical demands of running.
To enable a muscle or a muscle group, along with supporting ligaments and tendons, to exert physical effort, i.e., power, to meet the demands placed upon them.
For young runners, focus on muscles that trigger the running movement. This includes not just the abs and muscles of the shoulders and arms, but the glutes, quads, hip flexors, hamstrings, the lower back, and the inner and outer thigh. Movements, like front and lateral leg swings, hip raises, prone leg raises, step-ups and fire hydrants are important for young runners, both to run efficiently and to lessen the chance of injury.
A big part of this involves doing “complex exercises,” those that employ multiple joints and muscle groups to complete the motion or exercise in one continuous movement. Taking a light weight from the floor overhead in one movement is a simple complex exercise.
Cardiorespiratory fitness dictates how efficiently the heart, lungs, and blood vessels perform during extended or intense periods of physical activity.
Cardiorespiratory fitness is gained by increases in the heart rate and respiration. For this, focus on tempo runs, those faster than a jog but nowhere near a sprint. For youth, allow close to a full recovery before doing it again. These increase the heart rate and respiration allowing the runner to continue at a desired pace for longer periods of time. Running games, increasingly longer runs, drills, runs up and down stairs or a hill, and short-quick relays triggers the desired training affect.
The ability of the muscles or muscle groups, along with supporting ligaments and tendons, to perform contractions over an extended period.
First, forget thinking that a hundred repetitions of some exercise, with a weight that allows that many reps, is a route to building muscular endurance. The first ninety with a light weight are generally a waste of time. Repeated calf rises – standing with the ball of the foot on a block of wood and lifting the heel repeatedly off the floor will create a muscular effort with the first rep, and each rep after will stimulate muscular endurance in the muscles of the calf. Sitting against a wall with knees bent at 90 degrees but without a chair or holding in the top position of a push-up with elbows slightly bent, also will build muscular endurance because the training affect is immediate.
Flexibility allows the body to perform tasks through an entire range of motion and without pain or stiffness.
In recent years, Dynamic Stretching – the moving of the body through a full range of motion thus causing the stretch -- has become popular with runners. Static Stretching, where one muscle is isolated by holding a position for ten or more seconds, also has its proponents. Many athletes do Dynamic Stretching prior to running and Static Stretching as part of recovery.
Also, kids come to running to run, not to stretch. But still, taking time to stretch is important. Consider taking only a few minutes to stretch at the start and add stretches to the recovery period between runs and at the end of the run.
Skill, as applied to sports related fitness, refers to the agility, coordination, technique, speed, and balance needed to perform certain athletic activities.
In youth running, skills are tied to form: the position of the body in space, the arm action, posture, stride length, alignment (standing tall, erect), i.e., those actions that allow the body to move forward in a straight line. Correct form is not a one-day lesson, but a teaching opportunity for the coach or parent each day, every day, even for elite level runners. Skill development is largely built on running drills that reinforce correct arm action, knee lift, i.e., the mechanics of running efficiently or running fast.
As we realign our thinking that fitness should be a precursor to running, remember our six core principles of building fitness and strength.
1. Start early, start easy.
The JOURNAL OF YOUTH RUNNING’s posting, STRONG YOUNG RUNNERS, offers activities that introduce strength and mobility routines for novice runners regardless of age. These are a starting point.
2. Barbells are not necessary.
Start with bodyweight exercises. Weighted movements can come later. It is learning the biomechanics that come first – how the body moves and feels. Or start with just dumbbells or barbell plates - 2.5, 5, and 10 pounds.
3. Don’t rush it.
Strength training takes time, and even more time to see real improvement. Learning one, two or three exercises at practice is plenty to start with. Repeat those and add one or two at the next practice or the next week.
4. Compound movements.
Compound exercises, those that use several muscle groups, are time efficient and great for building strength and coordination. Start simple like a curl to an overhead press or picking a weight off the floor to overhead at arm’s length in one movement. A workout for young runners built on compound lifts for just fifteen minutes should get good results.
5. Teach form first, then work on strength
Teaching good form is easier than correcting bad form. With good form the target muscles will get the full benefit of the movement and reduce the risk of injury. Yes, kids like to show off how much they can lift in front of their friends, but if they are using bad form injury can occur.
6. Variety is important.
Doing the same exercises every day is not moving forward. Yes, work some of the same muscles or muscle groups, but accomplish that by using different exercises. One day it could be half squats with weights in each hand and another day introduce sitting against a wall without a chair to sit on.
New York Road Runners has produced a set of outstanding videos for teaching children good running form. These can be found on the NYRR website. Under the RUNNING START SERIES heading, the NYRR offers twenty segments that take the coach and young runners through the fundamentals of posture, leg, and arm movements, along with games and activities that help teach and reinforce good running form. These are very well done and highly informative.
Jeff Horowitz, runner, personal trainer, and accomplished author, offers clear explanations of strength building exercises in QUICK STRENGTH FOR RUNNERS. Although written for adult readers, Jeff starts with movements – some without weights and some with light weights – that can be done safely by young runners, even down to elementary and middle-school ages. Much of Jeff’s focus is on strengthening the muscle groups identified as being the “prime movers,” those that move the body forward; that maintain good running form all the way to the finish line.
ALSO… For new and young runners, check out Strong Young Runners posted on this website.
The Journal of Youth Running is supported by the
MICHIGAN RUNNING FOUNDATION